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Putting a CAP on the tropical Bont tick

For more than 170 years, the tropical Bont tick (Amblyomma variegatum) has been island hopping in the Caribbean, bringing severe economic losses for livestock producers wherever it goes. The Caribbean Amblyomma Programme (CAP), carried out by FAO, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), is working to wipe out the tropical Bont tick from the Caribbean and eliminate the possibility of the parasite reaching the shores of the American continents.

The tropical Bont tick travels on infested livestock, which is how it reached the Caribbean from Senegal in the nineteenth century. However, there is growing evidence that this tick is also carried by the cattle egret, a bird that can fly easily from island to island and as far as the Florida coast of the United States. The increased awareness of the tropical Bont tick's potential for mobility has made the need for its quick eradication from the Caribbean all the more acute.

The tropical Bont tick prefers to feed on domestic cattle, but will also infest sheep, goats, horses and dogs. In some areas, the tick can infest humans, causing intense skin irritation and inflammation. It inflicts a nasty bite, one that often develops into a septic wound or abscess in livestock, greatly reducing the trade value of animal hides. However, far worse than its bite are the diseases associated with this tick. The tropical Bont tick is the main vector for Cowdria ruminantium, a micro-organism that causes heartwater disease in domestic animals. The parasite is also associated with an increased prevalence of acute dermatophilosis, a skin disease of cattle caused by the bacteria Dermatophilus congolensis. Both diseases can kill livestock and reduce milk and meat production.

In affected Caribbean islands, heartwater disease and dermatophilosis have severely reduced domestic livestock production. On the island of Nevis, for example, 90 percent of cattle and 70 percent of small ruminants died from dermatophilosis when the tropical Bont tick invaded. The presence of this parasite has prevented many producers from fully capitalizing on meat demands of the tourist industry and local consumers. According to a 1995/96 mid-term report, the affected islands import US$100 million of livestock products annually.

International cooperation helps prevent an infestation in the Americas

Successful completion of CAP would not only benefit Caribbean livestock producers, but would also safeguard the livelihood of livestock producers throughout the entire Western Hemisphere. If the tick were to spread to the mainland of the Americas, there is the danger that heartwater disease could establish itself quickly and permanently, as agricultural experiments have shown that two indigenous American ticks are able to transmit the disease. Researchers estimate that a tropical Bont tick infestation on the American continents could cost the livestock industry as much as US$762 million. Measured against this amount, the cost of CAP, US$20 million over a six-year period, is minimal.

Click on map to see area where CAP is working

CAP is a joint effort between the international community and the Caribbean islands. International donors, including FAO, IICA, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the European Union (EU), and the governments of Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, have so far invested over US$8 million in CAP. Dr Jorgen Hansen, Senior Officer of FAO's Animal Health Service, noted the importance of the increased support of USDA: "In addition to their annual contributions, USDA provided an additional US$1.9 million which came at a critical point and was vital to the continuation of the eradication programme." About US$2.4 million is needed to complete the programme by the year 2001 and ensure the necessary follow-up surveillance. This amount has been requested from the EU.

CAP gets livestock producers involved

CAP takes a participatory approach to tick eradication. Local livestock producers, with the guidance of government staff, take responsibility for applying the necessary acaricide (tick killing chemical) treatments to their animals. To support its field activities, CAP carries out massive public information campaigns to encourage community participation in wiping out the tick. This approach in the English-speaking Caribbean is in contrast to traditional pest eradication programmes where field operations are carried out by government or international field teams. The animal owners' pivotal role in eradication has contributed to the reduced cost of the field actions and the increased technical and operational capacities of the nationals.

"Initial successes, particularly in Saint Kitts and Nevis and in Saint Lucia, have increased the private and public sectors' confidence in both livestock production and the animal health services capacity," according to Dr Rupert Pegram, CAP Programme Manager. "These islands are now including livestock development programmes in their agricultural diversification plans and individuals are once again getting into livestock production."

These observations are particularly encouraging considering the odds under which the programme initially operated, with few in the Caribbean or the international community able to believe or willing to back an approach that put so much responsibility on individuals not directly employed by the eradication programme. As summed up in a 1997 independent mid-term review of CAP, "Programme accomplishments are amazing in view of the conditional, temporary and marginal funding and the challenges of organizing and managing a unified programme while conforming to diverse management systems and philosophies." Fortunately, that review proved a turning point for the Caribbean. The first islands were nearing completion of the treatment phase, capacity building of the previous two years was bearing fruit, donor funding was increased and "putting a CAP on the tropical Bont tick" is now being seen as an achievable goal.

Go to related story: Where CAP is working

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7 October 1999

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